Cxs (connexins), the protein subunits forming gap junction intercellular communication channels, are transported to the plasma membrane after oligomerizing into hexameric assemblies called connexin hemichannels (CxHcs) or connexons, which dock head-to-head with partner hexameric channels positioned on neighbouring cells. The double membrane channel or gap junction generated directly couples the cytoplasms of interacting cells and underpins the integration and co-ordination of cellular metabolism, signalling and functions, such as secretion or contraction in cell assemblies. In contrast, CxHcs prior to forming gap junctions provide a pathway for the release from cells of ATP, glutamate, NAD+ and prostaglandin E2, which act as paracrine messengers. ATP activates purinergic receptors on neighbouring cells and forms the basis of intercellular Ca2+ signal propagation, complementing that occuring more directly via gap junctions. CxHcs open in response to various types of external changes, including mechanical, shear, ionic and ischaemic stress. In addition, CxHcs are influenced by intracellular signals, such as membrane potential, phosphorylation and redox status, which translate external stresses to CxHc responses. Also, recent studies demonstrate that cytoplasmic Ca2+ changes in the physiological range act to trigger CxHc opening, indicating their involvement under normal non-pathological conditions. CxHcs not only respond to cytoplasmic Ca2+, but also determine cytoplasmic Ca2+, as they are large conductance channels, suggesting a prominent role in cellular Ca2+ homoeostasis and signalling. The functions of gap-junction channels and CxHcs have been difficult to separate, but synthetic peptides that mimic short sequences in the Cx subunit are emerging as promising tools to determine the role of CxHcs in physiology and pathology.

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